Some months ago an American blogger sent me an email. She had been reading my blog and said that she and her French husband were about to move from Paris to Osaka. For a number of weeks we sent emails back and forth discussing Osaka and expat life, and got on well. They moved to Osaka. She kept on reading my blog and I hers.
One day I was reading her blog. In the post that I was reading she described the strange way that addresses are represented in Japan (in blocks instead of streets) and gave an example address. To my confusion the example address that she gave was my address. I emailed her and asked why she had given that particular address as an example. She explained that that was her address. We realized that for weeks we had been sending emails back and forth 10 floors between us – she on the 14th and I on the 24th floor of our building.
A couple of weeks later, my son’s school friend’s mother told us that they were moving from North Osaka to the city centre. It turned out they were also moving to my building, to the 13th floor!
I could but think: what is it with this building!? Ok, it’s big – 28 stories, and perhaps approx. 150 apartments, but still, Osaka is big – roughly the size of Los Angeles or Berlin, so there are hundreds or even thousands of apartment blocks in Osaka. What are the chances of two people that I know moving in to the same apartment building as us?
I would have understood it if these people knew where we lived and that had some effect on their decision on apartment buildings (not that we consider ourselves influential people) but they didn’t. So, this all seemed like an amazing coincidence.
This ‘coincidence’ baffled me for a while, until it dawned on me. The American-French couple are, well, American and French. They are not Japanese. My son’s school friend is of South-Korean origin (him and his mother speak fluent Japanese – but importantly, they are not Japanese). My husband and I are also not Japanese – we are British and Finnish, respectively. Our building is one of those few buildings in Osaka city centre where the landlord is willing to consider non-Japanese tenants. No longer do I think that it is a statistical miracle that we all live in the same building – if, in a given area, there is only a handful of buildings (or perhaps just one building) in which foreigners can secure a rental apartment, the likelihood that foreigners such as us find our way into this building is pretty high.
When my husband and I were trying to find a rental apartment in Osaka, just before we moved to Japan, we realized that in Japan it is surprisingly difficult to find a landlord who would consider foreign tenants. This is common knowledge and the letting agents state this openly. And our letting agent wasn’t fibbing us, given that (a) we had only a small selection of properties to choose from and (b) at the end – to secure the apartment – the letting agreement had to be made between my (Japanese) employer and the landlord rather than us and the landlord.
In some respects, Japan is a bit like Finland. Both countries have a relatively small number of immigrants/expats, for example in comparison to England. Thus, I feel, landlords’ (and many other people’s) perception of foreigners is still somewhat negative. Or perhaps, negative is too strong a word… maybe saying that landlords in Finland and Japan prefer natives to those countries, respectively would be a more accurate statement. But in Finland, Japanese-style open discrimination is illegal (but of course this doesn’t mean that landlords in Finland are necessarily keen on having foreign tenants – they just don’t state it openly).
In any case, after having lived for many years in a multi-cultural country (i.e. England), where foreigners generally feel relatively welcome, our experience of and insight into the Japanese rental property discrimination was surprising and disappointing.
It would be interesting to know how foreigners are received in other countries…